Hey! Amedeo Modigliani's story is sheer rock'n'roll thirty five years before rock'n'roll was invented! Born and dying in acute poverty, in-between he packed his all too brief thirty five years with drinks and drugs and sex before crashing and burning. Yet what he left us through his work and, in particular, the elegant, elongated nudes, lives on as a testimony to what a truly great artist he was.
He was born in Livorno, Tuscany, Italy, the fourth child of parents who followed Sephardic Judaism. His father was Flaminio Modigliani, a money-changing merchant, and his mother was French-born Eugénie Garsin. When his father's business went bust, the family lived in extreme poverty.
Illness affected Modigliani almost his whole life and came early. At 14 he had a bout of typhoid and at 16 contracted tuberculosis. Perhaps as a consequence of this he suffered severe bouts of depression.
When he was 18, he
enrolled at Scuola libera di Nudo in Florence. In 1903, he moved to Venice to study at the Istituto per le Belle Arti di Venezia. But rather than study he spent his days smoking hashish and visiting disreputable parts of the city.
In 1906, Modigliani moved to Paris. He settled in Le Bateau-Lavoir, a commune for penniless artists in Montmartre. Quickly he began painting, absorbing influences like Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and, slowly, his own unique style emerged. Perhaps because the need for money was so acute, he would work at an incredible speed, never needing more than two sittings to complete a work.
Whilst in Paris, he continued the wild lifestyle of his Venice days. By 1909, he was burnt out, and
returned home to Livorno. When he recovered, he returned to Paris, and rented a studio in Montparnasse. It was in this period, between 1909-12, that Modigliani concentrated on sculpting after the art dealer Paul Guillaume introduced him to the sculptor Constantin Brancusi. The frenzy culminated when his sculptures were exhibited in the Salon d'Automne of 1912. Thereafter, he abandoned the medium and put all his efforts into painting.
The style of the elongated faces and the elongated bodies, inspired by the primitive art of Africa and Cambodia, was now perfected. You can see the influence of African masks in his work but he filtered the influence through his unique mind and created portraits that were at the same time ancient and timeless. And the portraits from this time included Montparnasse luminaries such as Pablo Picasso, Diego Rivera
and Jean Cocteau.
When World War I came in 1914, he tried to enlist in the army but was refused because of his poor health.
Modigliani was a good-looking geezer, and as is the way of good-looking geezers, had his pick of beautiful women. They came and went in rapid succession. They included Beatrice Hastings, and in 1916, a beautiful 19-year-old art student from a devout Roman Catholic family. Her name was Jeanne Hébuterne. When she took up with Modigliani her family renounced her. To them, not only was his debauched lifestyle the worst possible influence on their daughter but he was also Jewish. Despite their protestations, Hébuterne lived with the artist and became the love of hi life.
The following year, he had his first one-man exhibition at the Berthe Weill Gallery. Strange to think of now less than a 100 years after the event, but Modigliani's nudes were deemed shocking and pornographic. The exhibition was forced to close within a few hours after its opening.
Hébuterne soon moved to Nice. On November 29, 1918 she gave birth to a daughter whom they named Jeanne. Whilst in Nice and short of cash, Modigliani sold some his paintings to rich tourists for a few francs. It is the paintings from this time that today a worth an absolute fortune as they were in the style that he is chiefly remembered for today. It is heartbreaking really to think that the art dealers today who make a fortune from selling his work are doing so on the back of an artist who made so little. Throughout his life, he sold quite lot of work but what little he received in return went on supporting his drink and drug habits.
The couple and child returned to Paris in 1919. They rented an apartment in the rue de la Grande Chaumière. He continued to paint, but his health was deteriorating rapidly, couple with ever-increasing alcohol-induced blackouts.
The following year, a neighbour checked on the family after not t hearing from him for several days. Modigliani was in bed delirious and holding onto Hébuterne who was nearly nine months pregnant. A doctor was quickly called for but it was useless: Modigliani had tubercular meningitis and was near death.
He died without regaining consciousness. Though he died in extreme poverty, the art world treated him in death like a ing, and he was afforded an enormous funeral. Two days later,
Hébuterne, unable to live without him, threw herself out of a fifth-floor window, killing herself and her unborn child.
For 10 years after her death, her family continued to punish her.
Modigliani was interred at the famous Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris; Hébuterne was buried at the Cimetière de Bagneux near Paris. It was not until 1930 that the family gave permission for her body to be moved to rest beside Modigliani.
Modigliani's 15-month old daughter, Jeanne, was adopted by his sister in Florence. She died in 1984.
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